Oriental Empires (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam

A key to good 4X design, I’ve often found, is understanding. That seems like a simple thing, but sadly, we’ve seen it proven time and time again over the years that it’s not. Oriental Empires is a strategy game set in ancient China, and its UI is… Not the friendliest.

The latest heir of my empire, being annoying and blocking my authority/culture meter.

In fact, the game as a whole isn’t very friendly. Considering that games don’t exist in a vacuum, this… Is kind of a big deal. Small text, smaller tooltips, and further information behind easy to miss subtabs left a bad taste in my mouth.

A bad taste that, sadly, only worsened when I found out about Local Factors. Hidden behind about three layers of interaction (Click banner, click unrest icons for general unrest details, click Dissatisfaction) is a number, contributing to your chance of revolt… That cannot be directly affected, and changes over time because… Well, to all practical intents and purposes, because reasons.

There’s not so much a tutorial as “A 40+ page in-game manual and an advisor that will tell you about things after you’ve worked out how to do them.” The actual effect of buildings and research (Outside of combat related improvements, it generally boils down to “Gives Happiness”, “Gives Authority”, “Unlocks a resource exploiter”, and “Makes some bad events less bad.” ) are hidden under popups (The wee texty bars lookin’ icon shows or hides that.) Occasionally, those popups will obscure information that you need, such as when an Heir comes along, randomly, and covers up the Authority and Culture meters you need to, for example, judge how many settlements you can build without added resentment (A brief irritation, but one of, as noted, quite a few.) Does it play well?

Okay, so I want you and you to flank so as to cut off retr- Which part of “Cut off Retreat” did you not understand, soldiers?

Honestly, not really. Outside of combat largely seems like an afterthought, especially in the early game, where resources are rare, and you are both encouraged to land grab and, er… Not exceed your Authority (which controls how many cities you can own without dissatisfaction) for fear of rebellions. Buildings have a high upkeep, so you’re rarely dealing with that, conquering things is a bad idea, due to that aforementioned Authority issue…

It makes the early game painful, in more senses than one. It doesn’t really help that combat, also, doesn’t feel like you have all that much control over it. Simultaneous turns means that you may well have trouble pinning down your opponent for a fight, and when you do get in a fight? Well, enemies will escape, so you have to start the whole palaver again, having multiple battles in a single round with a single force if you’ve preset your movement right, or fighting over multiple turns if you don’t (The correct method, generally, seems to be “Into the enemy and past them in the direction you think they’re most likely to run for as many movement points as you feel you can manage.) It doesn’t particularly feel engaging, especially as multiple fights are likely to break out in a single turn, and combat tactics are limited. Why did my units mill about aimlessly for most of a combat with a charge, but efficiently (if extremely widely) flank when I asked them to? No idea. I’m not told. Oh, and no, cutting off retreat with just the units you have is not an option. The enemy will retreat. Multiple times.

Really, these problems, these lack of clarity, kill the game for me, and it doesn’t particularly help that, visually, it doesn’t feel all that interesting either. The music is fitting, at least, but it doesn’t really redeem a game that will sometimes tell you useful things after you need them, sometimes just not tell you, and has many a turn passing with… Well, nothing of note happening. Kind of saddening, really.

This rain turned red as blood, and almost caused a rebellion. Funnily, most bad things seem to be “Causes unrest.”

The Mad Welshman finds no happiness here. 

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Stars In Shadow + Legacy DLC (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £18.99 Base Game, Legacy DLC £3.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I’d missed Stars In Shadow the first time around, sadly, but, thanks to a nice, cheap DLC introducing a new race, hey, I get to review it! Isn’t that nice? Wait, a cyborg race worshipping a computer that comprises most of their planet? Even better!

Awww, wookitdawiddle religious murderbots!

So, for those who, like me, missed Stars In Shadow, the basic idea is that it’s a relatively simple, very friendly to play turn based strategy game in space, where you raise an alien species (or, y’know, humans) with differing specialities and flaws to the stars in a micro-universe. Usually, it must be said, through building lots of ships and tanks, murderising the heck out of everyone else, while researching ways to keep your economy going and build better, murderier tanks and ships.

Okay, so there’s maybe other victory conditions too, like allied victory and winning the galactic presidency… But blowing ships up is, honestly, a skill you’ll need throughout. Also it involves building your very own Dread Star, and how many can turn that down?

Because this is mainly to do with the DLC, however, let us note that the majority of my playtime has been with the Tinkers, the cybernetic race who possess the upside of not needing food, and the downside of… Well, tying up an entire planet’s resources every time they want to increase their otherwise slow to grow population. Dagnabbit, game abstractions! They also convert population by, effectively, borging them, which is a shame, because they otherwise seem like very nice theocrats who worship a planet computer.

The Herald, who, sadly, had to make bank off someone else… Who got the sweet, sweet technologies I didn’t.

Which is a sentence I never thought I’d say. In any case, even if the Legacy DLC just involved a playable faction, it would be reasonably priced, but there’s also an added NPC race (The Arda Seed, who are treefolk), and… The Herald. The Herald’s an interesting one, as he flies about the galaxy, visiting pretty much every race, and offering them a leg up, research wise, in exchange for materials. It adds a bit of much needed spice.

There’s actually a fair bit added for the price, and that’s somewhat nice, because, as is, Stars In Shadow is very streamlined. It’s friendly enough that I would certainly recommend it as an entry point into Space 4X games, and the turn based combat is pleasant, as is the ship design system, but… I freely admit I have a little trouble saying much because I’m rather used to different fare by now. Is Stars In Shadow good? Alas, not for me personally. But, as mentioned, it’s a friendly and mostly accessible entry point into the 4X genre, and games are relatively quick. A 50 star game can be finished in a couple of hours, either to victory or defeat, and when it does end in defeat, it’s usually pretty clear what you had problems with. And the Legacy DLC? Well, it adds a bit more depth, a bit more challenge, and an entirely new race to play with for a very reasonable price.

A good example of an early game mistake: Taking on space pirates with only starting weaponry. So consider this “1 turn before Bad Things Happen.”

The Mad Welshman likes robot factions. It’s one of the easier ways to his heart.

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Dawn of Andromeda (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store

Real Time Strategy in space has always been a tough proposition. Mainly because space is big, and the early game of any such endeavour can, done “realistically”, have all the fun of watching paint dry, while the mid to late game can be plagued with doing a thing wrong, then not realising for a good hour (or until it’s too late, whichever comes sooner.) Dawn of Andromeda, sadly, is no different in this, despite a potentially interesting main campaign.

Pictured: an interesting *description*

Let’s talk about that campaign narrative a little, because honestly, it’s a feature I see very little of in the old 4X (eXpand, eXplore, eXploit, eXterminate) genre these days, and one involving multiple alien races in a grand tapestry of war, tragedy, and shenanigans? Sign me u-

Oh. Oh wait. I can’t find that mercenary I just hired and sent to kill a bounty for my current best friends, the Sython (Who the Terran Empire totally isn’t going to go to a long, expensive war with several times over the next few millennia before somebody else screws it all up.) Wait, I found him again, and… Wait, I lost a survey ship? When did I? Oh, while I was watching this guy half a galaxy away. Meanwhile, I’m debating which of the more far flung colony worlds I should try expanding to, in the hope I can actually defend them.

Space is not only big, but also rather sparse. This is something I’m not actually that fond of being reminded of in space opera games, for some reason.

What I’m getting at here, folks, is that Dawn of Andromeda is not the friendliest of games. There are three game speeds (not counting pause), and while they’re marked “Slow”, “Normal”, and “Fast”, I have different names for them: “Can actually see a fight happening”, “Can watch bars slowly tick up”, and “The speed I go at while I’m waiting for things to happen.” Pause is pretty much my default state while I try to work out what the hell is going on with my scouts and survey ships and, in one particular case, watching a bounty slowly, but surely, escape the guy I’d just hired to take it.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot to take in, adding to the “A lot of the time you will be paused.” Understanding an alien race enough to talk to them is a research project, taking time away from your research. Adding to a world’s power requires an infrastructure investment, which will cost you some money a turn until it’s done. You have an approval rating, which will cause rebellions if it’s low, and goes up and down based on… Factors. Decent living conditions help, as does an assigned councillor who isn’t an asshole. It’s not very colour blind friendly, to the point where, zoomed in to a point where I have two ships chasing each other in my field of view, I can’t actually see the things without straining my eyes (Drag selecting will only select the ship I directly control.)

It tries to help, really it does. It has “Zoom in here” icons in the planet tables, fleet tables, anomaly tables… But the main screen is a mess. The UI isn’t the friendliest. Ships can chase each other for a long time without fights happening, and ships attacking from the front will move toward said fast ship, then tail along behind it, losing it like the other poor bastards chasing it in the first place. Providing you have the foresight (and opportunity) to pull such a maneuver off in the first place.

Gripping [YAWN] Space combat. [YAWN] Honest!

I’m sure the game has some interesting things in it. I’m sure it has something, some potential. But I’m finding frustration in even the easiest of scenarios (Where I am informed, and tentatively agree, that even finding the alien worlds may well eat up the whole 2 years allotted for “survival”), boredom from the sparse universe, and quickly realising that it amounts to “Build lots of ships, point them at whatever enemy while holding your own worlds safe”, despite its other trappings. As I am occasionally forced to say, the game resists being played.

The Mad Welshman accepts that Space is big. But surely it’s more interesting than this?

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Endless Space 2 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £34.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store

Endless Space 2 is big. I mean really big. I mean, you may think it’s a long walk down to the chemist’s, but that’s peanuts compared to Endless Space 2!

Joking reference aside, Endless Space 2 is, as far as turn based strategy where you eXpand, eXplore, eXploit and eXterminate other alien races, most often while playing an alien race yourself, actually quite good. Even if I’m somewhat salty about Amplitude following the current “stance” of “Who even plays hotseat?” (Hi! I do! And so do quite a few of my friends!)

Making this clear right now… The Sophons are totally not my… Adorkable, irresponsible, space babies. Nope.

So let’s get that out the way right now: Multiplayer is online only, none of the playing-with-yourself or risk free theorycrafting shenanigans you’d be used to in some other… Well, quite a few other strategy games, up till relatively recently. If that’s a turnoff, I understand. Let’s get on to the good stuff.

In Endless Space 2, there are eight races, and they all play somewhat differently. This has pretty much been the charm of Amplitude games since the studio arose in 2011, and it’s a skill they’ve been steadily honing through their company life. The Unfallen, for example, with their “branch” system of colonising, are extremely interesting. They can only colonise in lines from the homeworld, and instead of sending a ship full of people, they send a ship that lures space-vines from the homeworld, entangling a system, and then they send the first colonists through the space-vines. On the upside, this means they can stretch out a web of influence, and colonise systems quickly once they have the technology to actually live on the bloody things. On the downside, if somebody happens to conquer a system along that branch, whether there were nice treemen living there or not, everything further down the branch is lost, and, unlike every other faction except the Vodyani, if you lose your homeworld, that’s it. Game over. Caput.

But interest comes in many flavours. A returning faction from the first game, the Sophons, are my dear little science babies, not because they have a different colonisation method, or because they’re game breaking, but because they have accepted that Science is a verb, a noun, a preposition, and… Look, they really like science… Often to their own detriment. And I love them for it, which leads nicely into the narrative end of things.

And it definitely isn’t because they acknowledge as objective fact that Science is a Verb.

Endless Space 2 has race specific questlines. The Sophons, for example, have found themselves in the unenviable position of having created the universe’s first (known) Super-AI, called ENFER, have plugged it into everything they can, and now have to answer a very difficult question: How the heck do we keep it happy? Everybody has their thing, and nobody is very nice. The United Empire, under very Stalinist propaganda, are influence wielding warmongers, the Riftborn just want to live, their perfect, ordered universe having been destroyed by our chaotic, quantum-fuckery filled one (Which, if you think about it, is very much Cosmic Horror), the Horatio (A race of clones) want to make things perfect (IE – All Horatio, because Horatio is perfection), the Cravers are perfectly happy being hungry murderbugs designed to devour entire planets (or are they?) , and…

…Look, there’s a lot of stories here. Not just the eight racial stories, but the stories of individual heroes, the universe (The fallout of a war between two ideologically opposed Super Races who appear to have killed each other, but may not actually be dead, is one familiar to science fiction fans, but is excellently implied), and even of specific worlds, come together in a well written and engaging universe that’s well worth looking at on its own. The UI is mostly friendly and clear (The research “circle” is a little confusing at first, as is how to get to ground force management), the ships have real polish and difference to them, and the music… Electronic heaven, whether its somewhat ambient, as in the title screen, or the more “Ohcrap, things are happening” of the combat tuneage.

Both ground and space combat, for returning Endless players, has had some improvement, with extra choices and tactics at the beginning, but remains “You make choices about range and tactics, then watch the pretty lights and explosions.” Or don’t.

Essentially, if you want to eXplore space, eXpand into new worlds, and eXploit and eXterminate new civilisations, Endless Space 2 is another good one to go for. Like Master of Orion 2016, its difficulty is fairly adjustable, and, as noted, my main bitch with the game is the same one I have with this genre all over in recent years… I just want to have a chill time smashing spaceships and aliens together, by myself, and nobody’s letting me.

The Mad Welshman can’t actually pick a favourite faction. They’re all moustache twirley in their own way, and he loves them all equal- AHAHA SCIENCE FOR THE WIN, YOU CAN’T OUTFIGHT ME IF I OUT-TECH YOU EVERYWHERE!

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Endless Space 2 (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £26.24 standard, £33.73 Digital Deluxe
Where To Get It: Steam

Since the inception of Amplitude in 2011 (An event I remember with some small fondness), the studio have experimented with 4X genre constraints with their Endless series of games (With a little side trip into the roguelike/tower defense genre with Dungeons of the Endless.) They’re an interesting studio, with an interesting model, and, as a result, their games are often interesting. Not always standing the test of time, but often putting new ideas into the game development community.

Political Parties, new to Endless Space 2!

Endless Space 2, so far, is shaping up to be no different in that respect. As such, it’s already a somewhat different beast to the original Endless Space, taking what they’ve learned from Endless Legend to fiddle with the space 4X formula. And the five factions currently available, a mix of the rejiggered old, and completely new, demonstrates this quite aptly.

It also demonstrates that sometimes I don’t get on with aspects of the experimentation, as the first new faction, the Vodyani, demonstrates.

In the Endless Universe (Now rebooted, in a sense, for Endless Space 2), the Vodyani are one half of the uplift philosophies of the two “Endless” precursor alien groups that have left their mark on the universe, the Virtual. Virtual beings seemingly made of flame, the Vodyani are slow burners on the game front, due to their core mechanic: Both population growth and colonisation are tied to Essence, which can either be extracted from Dust (Tying up your production queue) or from other life forms (Tying up your military and souring diplomacy pretty much everywhere they go.) They can move from system to system with their Arks (Heavily armed and armoured space Titans), and it’s only when they attach themselves to a world that they colonise it. Or, you can go with their slow as molasses population growth

Dun Dundrrrun dun du-du-du-dun DAA DAA DAA DA DA-DAAAA DA DA-DAAAA!

But when they do, unlike other races, each counter of population applies to each planet they can colonise. They’re this strange mix of strong and fragile, as I discovered when I found the Ark… Couldn’t defend against a ground invasion. Cue one lost game. One of many.

I’ve had a much better time, by contrast, with the slightly more conventional factions: The United Empire, The Sophons, and the Lumeris (I’ve never been good at playing Cravers, but they seem largely unchanged from ES1, in the sense that being penned in is the worst thing that can happen to them, and conquest is the major victory type.) Each one has a different focus (Industry with the UE, Science with the Sophons, and Dust with the Lumeris), and each faction in general has something to bring to the table. For example, the Lumeris buy their colonies, and can trade them if they so desire, while the Sophons research faster if nobody else has the tech yet, allowing their research to… Far, far outpace their industry, if you’re not careful. The main problems right now (I’m almost certain this is subject to change) is that the AI is a little timid once you’ve built up enough force, and doesn’t seem to play the Rock-Paper-Scissors game with beam, energy, and missile weapons so well… Although they’ll still kick your ass on a ground assault without the numbers on your side.

The United Empire: Now much more clearly Not Good People.

It’s entertaining, there’s no doubt about that, as the questline feature from Endless Legend is applied adroitly to each faction (For example, the UE is about the paranoid emperor trying to find and quash dissent), and the new political system, if your economy goes well, can allow for some drastic shifts in focus, although I often find, due to my playstyle and the fact that war empowers them, that the Militarist party is most often in power regardless of faction, although minor races having their own political affiliation helps. The UI is simple and clean, the battle mode has some clarifications and upgrades (Although not full ship control, which I know turns some folks off) …

… But right now, even though I’m finding it fun a fair amount of the time, it’s also oddly frustrating in portions. When a game goes badly, it goes horrifically, depressingly wrong, but when it goes well? I find myself running out of things to do, to build, and so, by about turn 100 on a good game, I’m finding myself hitting the End Turn button twice, once to try, and once to confirm that yes, I’m not building anything in those five or so core systems because my industry has outpaced my research, or there’s nothing that I particularly need at this point. Your mileage, obviously, may vary there. Something that may get fixed before release is that the battles seem to calculate slower as the game goes on, and this can become a bit annoying, and, as the final screenshot shows, some of the faction colours may be a problem for colourblind folks to read.

Still, the writing of the game so far is pleasant, if somewhat stereotypical in places (Space Shark Mafia are quite literally a Mafia, Crime Families and all, for example), the art and ship designs are gorgeous, the music is calming for the most part, and the rebooted universe of the Endless still, somehow, feels fresh.

I just wish I really understood how the Vodyani played, even if I love Sciencing the crap out of people as the Sophons.

The Sophons know, like all good space-dorks, that Science Is A Verb. 8D

The Mad Welshman fully understands the Sophons’ joy. I mean, there’s nothing quite like writing your name on the moon with a giant death laser, is there?

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